I first saw Nimmi Harasgama on a plane. I don’t know what year it was. I think I must have been either on the way to Sri Lanka or on the way back; I was exhausted, but when I discovered a captivating Sinhala film, I didn’t want to sleep–I wanted to watch. I was particularly compelled by one of the film’s storylines, which featured a young woman desperate to find her missing husband. The actress had a striking face and delivered a sad and memorable performance. It was perhaps the first Sri Lankan film I had ever seen–indeed, because I found it in progress, I did not even get to see the whole thing. Still, I was transfixed, and impressed.
The dark feel of the film stayed with me for years. Then, in late 2008, a friend sent me a link to a Sri Lankan comedienne doing an auntie character I found hilarious. One of my favorite lines from the first video: “I’m calling from abroad–yes, that’s why I’m wearing a hat, and everything–you can’t see, no?” (At about 20 seconds in.)
When the friend mentioned that the actress had also appeared in the Sri Lankan film “Akasa Kusum,” I did a bit of Googling, and thought that without her auntie getup, she looked familiar. Had she been in the film I’d seen on the plane? I read the descriptions of the rest of the films in her IMDB history and realized that on that flight, I’d watched bits of “Ira Madiyama / August Sun”. She had played the young woman desperate to find her missing husband. And that luminous actress was ALSO auntie netta. Now I was intrigued.
Through the friend, I called the actress up for a chat and she told me a little bit about how she’d come up with auntie netta, and also that she was thinking of maybe developing the character into a stage show. I last posted about her right before that show, auntie netta’s Holiday from Asylum and promised a follow-up that would include a q&a with her.
This interview with Nimmi Harasgama, the award-winning London-based actress behind both of those performances, references that first conversation, so I’ll preface the q&a with some of the background I learned then… and will follow with another post including the more recent exchange.In our first chat, Nimmi told me she had been very shy as a kid, and that her mother took her to drama club in Sri Lanka as a way of helping her learn to speak more. She realized she liked performing–”being other people,” as she put it. She moved to England in the 1970s, and when she was 14, became involved with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. In the summer she did plays in the West End of London. Eventually she did compromised between drama school and university by going to university, but using her time there to do a degree in drama and theatre arts.
She got into film over the past decade, in Sri Lanka, where she was generally cast in serious and glamorous roles. Both Akasa Kusum and Ira Madiyama, by Prasanna Vithanage, won critical acclaim. (I need to try to get them so I can watch them properly. Akasa Kusum is in my Netflix queue; August Sun, sadly, isn’t an option.)
But while she had been successful as a dramatic actress, “nobody tends to cast me in comedy,” she told me. Creating auntie netta was her way to break out of that. If you’ve watched the auntie netta videos, you can see why at first I might not have recognized her. Indeed, as auntie netta she seems totally transformed.
How did she come up with auntie? Well, Nimmi told me, “She’s been in my head for years and I’ve not been brave enough to bring her out.” When she had to be home for a couple of months, she finally started experimenting with the character, who is a mixture of “different people in Sri Lanka.”
“And me,” she added. “I’m quite shy and boring and I’m a bit mad, I suppose.” If she was going to be like auntie netta when she was older, she guessed, she might as well start now. With bits and fragments of stories from real life, plus a considerable amount of her own madcap invention, auntie was born.
For some time, Nimmi and her co-conspirators filmed netta without a standard camera; they had only a webcam, and auntie’s early routines were limited because they were carrying around a laptop. Still, you can see from the early shorts that netta makes the most of what she has–she’s inventive in small spaces. (netta’s been a fan of “Skippy,” for example, the Internet VOIP service. Nimmi has since acquired some Flip cams and a standard videocamera.)
“First time on Skippy for you, no?”
Despite–or perhaps because?–of the comedy’s simplicity, viewers have really connected with it. “I get comments like, ‘This is my auntie,’” Nimmi told me. Some of the stories are based on real people, or aunties her friends have told her about–but she’s also different: “Basically she’s not exactly like all those aunties because she’ll actually say it the way it is,” Nimmi said. What’s happened to auntie over the course of her life, Nimmi noted, has made her a person who’s honest and to the point.
Now, Nimmi would like auntie netta to have a more elaborate stage. When we first talked, Netta was hosting a comedy show and Nimmi was thinking about the one-woman show. Nimmi didn’t want her to just be a caricature, and was looking at the whole idea of people seeking asylum in England as a possible concept for the show. Auntie’s Sri Lankan, but she isn’t supposed to be particularly Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, or Burgher. “I want her to be able to talk about them all and get away with it,” Nimmi said.
Here’s a link to auntie netta making reference to multiple Sri Lankan identities (and there are also some in the second video embedded above, if you watch the whole way through–and a reference to the developing storyline of her seeking asylum). (You’ll note that this link includes a collaborator, the awesome D’Lo. More on that in the next post.)
Nimmi herself is part-Sinhalese and part-Tamil. She has worked in a few different jobs in Sri Lanka in addition to her acting, including a stint at Young Asia Television. She speaks Sinhalese and understands Tamil, and has been planning to study Tamil more formally. She moved to London because she wanted to give acting in English a go.
“There should be a space for different types of comedy,” she says. “We’re all just having fun… with a small message.” And Auntie Netta is gutsy enough to deliver that message. “I wish I could just be her the whole time. I could get a whole lot more done in life, I’m telling you!” Nimmi said.
At the comedy show, her first public outing, “people just warmed to her. People wanted to have autographs taken with her and hold her hand.” No matter how difficult auntie was, “they loved her,” Nimmi said. Kind of a can-we-be-your-nieces-and-nephews-type situation. What does she tell those who ask if Netta will be their auntie?
“Come, darling. Of course,” she said, immediately slipping into her netta-voice. Of course, she added, she was stroking her cheek as she offered the invitation.